Religion and economics: A perspective

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For most of us, the proverbial war between science and religion ended long ago, either in a stalemate or a truce. Nonetheless, the conflict between religion and economics goes on, apparently for good reasons. After all, didn’t Jesus throw the money traders out of the temple?

Economics, you know, isn’t called the “dismal science” for no reason. What could be more dreary than the “economic man” put forward by classical economics – a creature motivated by nothing more than material self-interest? Economics refers to the way that people relate to each other over resources. What a contrast with the “Christian man”, who aspires to love God by serving others with hope and charity.

To make matters worse, classical economic theory assumes a world of scarce resources in which individuals have no choice but to compete with each other in order to survive. Our Christian faith, on the other hand, teaches us that in God’s world there is more than enough to go around. Therefore, the goal of God’s economy is always a shared prosperity and never the prosperity of one social group over and against another. The great Old Testament prophets focused on the way wealth was shared, which is a matter of justice. (Isaiah 58, Amos 5, etc.)

But are religion and economics really as irreconcilable as that? To be sure, Jesus threw the money traders out of the temple. (Matthew 21:12-13) But He also praised the servants who profitably invested their masters’ money, and reproached the one who only tried to conserve it (Luke 19:11-25). If Jesus’ confrontation with the money lenders isn’t the sum of the Gospels’ lessons on economics, perhaps classical economics doesn’t have the last word on wealth either. “Economic man” may only care about profit and loss, but some of today’s economists have a more generous perspective. For example, they view intelligent money management as a means to achieving a better life rather than an end in itself. Take Ben Stein and Phil Demuth. In their book “Yes, you can still retire confortably!”, they offer some surprising advice to retirees in their seventies and beyond.

“Do your children know that you love them? If not, when were you planning on telling them?”
“Whom do you need to set things right with? Now might be a good time.” Whether or not Jesus perceived an inevitable conflict between faith and economics, he never mentioned it.
Perhaps He has a more inclusive understanding of economics than classical economists and some Christians do.

• Reverend Jan A. Scholtz (Dip Theol. and B Theol., SA) writes in his personal capacity.

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